Friday, September 26, 2014

Mission Accomplished

Well, it was quite a night last night (Thurs). Started out at 7pm for most of us, gathering at the factory where our PTS (Payload Transportation System) folk had dropped off the spacecraft container 2 weeks ago. The vehicle had been loaded inside the container in the giant clean-room, maintaining the clean integrity of the container and the spacecraft (contamination of any sort could destroy a VERY expensive spacecraft, cutting it's mission life in space short). About 10pm they opened the outer door to the clean-room 'airlock' and the 3-axle bogey (the back end) was connected. After that they fired up the bogey and backed the container slowly out. After that there was much standing around as we weren't allowed to push the container onto the street until midnight (there were a LOT of lookey-loo's from the factory....I gather it's a big deal for them each time one of their spacecraft leave...many years of labor for LOTS of people, and a quite significant investment for them and the country...many of our tax-dollars rolled out on the street last night!)

We had lots of security and police type people....this was the first time I can recall seeing 'guys with guns'....they were Dept. of Defense police (didn't know there was such a thing). They were some extremely serious looking guys wearing body armor and carrying M16's. They had spread out pretty good, not entirely sure how many there were, but the ones I did see looked like they were really watching the environment...kind of what I would think Secret Service does when they are on 'the job'. Then we had the local police, the factory security, and the Highway Patrol (who would be running point on our convoy). All in all, a lot of guys with guns. After they blocked the street and pushed the container out all the way they were able to hook up the "prime mover" (a super-dooper semi-tractor, custom made for this job).

FINALLY around 1pm we had a big gather-round as the details of our route along with the convoy makeup (your position in the convoy) was discussed. HP would be leading the way, lots of corners to turn (the container is pretty ginormous, and it doesn't corner real good...thankfully we're moving about 5mph MAX, and they'll stop or slow for anything they need to). There were more than a few times where we were going around stoplights (they hang too low) or driving in the opposing traffic lane. The various police agencies were running interference, blocking all the intersections as the caravan slowly made it's way by...and the local police at the end were trying to keep cars from driving into / past our convoy. They were pretty busy back there....many times we'd hear them on their PA telling cars to "STAY WHERE YOU ARE"....I'm sure many of the drivers out in the middle of the night were wondering just what was going on. A giant vehicle of some sort, people up on it/all over it, civilians, Air Force, all surrounded by multiple law enforcement agency vehicles....lots and lots of flashing lights of all colors, all the vehicles in the convoy with their hazard flashers going...it must have been quite a sight.

Our place in the convoy (I was in the electronics monitoring truck) was 2nd behind the container, so we had a birds eye view of 'the show'. OH...I forgot to mention...we also had "G-men" in our little band of brothers....while they were hooking up the container and getting it ready to roll, a few of them (dressed quite casually, looking like 'people in the crowd') came into our truck and introduced themselves....they were asking lots of questions as to our monitoring capabilities. Specifically they were asking if we could monitor certain frequencies that those little quad-copter drones run on....APPARENTLY (and I hadn't thought of this before actually) they can be a real security threat. Whether carrying a camera or something else much more sinister, they are so cheap that pretty much anybody can have one, and be flying it from a block or more away...(making it VERY hard to capture them if they have bad intentions I'd suspect...I mean, who do you go after?) Anyway...it was an interesting conversation...and they were amongst the convoy along w/ all the rest of our 'protectors'.

All the vehicles had 'radios' so there was constant communication in our convoy. I was riding shotgun, so I also had the radio (woo-hoo!) There were 6 of us in our vehicle (we had picked up 2 'extras'...one was a specialist in the RF emissions arena from the factory....and another was another guy from the factory looking for a ride to the aircraft and we were a large truck....welcome aboard.
At one point during the drive apparently some car got pretty aggressive trying to get around the blocking police in the back (to pass our convoy as we were moving QUITE slow) and actually hit the cop. I'm betting THAT didn't go too well...might have been drinking is my guess...it was now somewhere between 2 and 3am as we rolled along and finally got to the west gate of LAX, where we were escorted in, regrouped as they closed the gate, then escorted quite a ways on airport property to our waiting C5. All the PTS crew who wasn't needed on the convoy had been bussed over and had work-lights blazing away and were standing by to load. Also a bunch of factory folk were there, wanting to eek every last moment with their spacecraft (some will even come up to the base and be involved with/watch the launch).

And so....we are at the aircraft, the PTS people are jumping into action loading the huge container into the huge C5 aircraft....and we start prepping our giant carts of equipment to go into the aircraft too (the equipment follows the spacecraft wherever it goes as long as it's outside of a protected clean-room). Each of our two 'carts' full of gear weighs 1000 lbs...(the cart has wheels). Our truck has a nice hydraulic lift...so we can wheel the cart out onto the ramp and lower it to the ground. But that's after we've removed our antenna assemblies from the lift mechanisms (they are lifted thru holes in the roof so they are sticking outside for the drive) and put on the cart with the rest of the gear. We have small UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply...ie: battery backup) with each cart good for around 10 minutes. We do our best to keep all the gear running...it's the kind of gear that really doesn't like being turned off and then turned back on (we've had it all running for over a week now...our truck has on-board generators providing power for as long as we need it). We keep them plugged into AC power right up to the moment they are fork-lifted on-board the aircraft...which only happens after the container is fully loaded. The rear bogey needs to be removed from the container and brought around to the front of the aircraft, and loaded in front of the prime mover (the C5 opens in front and back...you can literally drive tanks and such on from one end and drive them out the other. This C5 is one of 2 modified to fit this special container....the largest one in our inventory). While they are disconnecting and moving it around we quickly load our carts of gear and get them plugged back into power before they die (do NOT want that to happen).

Of course I've glossed over how much WORK is involved in all this...as we are loading our carts it's now about 8am and it's now light out (remember we started back at 7pm the night before).  As we are completing the power and location/etc of our carts the PTS crew and the C5 aircrew are finishing up chaining down EVERYTHING. The aircraft has a "load-master" and he's in charge of the load. He (or she) is in charge of making sure EVERYTHING is lashed (chained) down properly in the right locations. The plane has to be able to FLY after all, and things need to be balanced. He needs to know weights and such...however this isn't the first dance with the container...and things can NOT break free and move around during flight...that would be VERY BAD. So...the PTS crew has bypassed our racks (remember, they weigh 1000lbs each...pretty significant hunk of stuff on wheels if not properly tied down) as it's getting close to time to leave...so after running power and comm cables all over the aircraft I now get to lash them down (I've never used the chain-rigs they use...though I've watched and it doesn't seem like rocket science).

Turns out chaining stuff down is pretty significant work. And there's a method to the madness...everything is 'cross-chained' (hard to explain).  As it's getting near 9am turns out the entire convoy is waiting on US to finish tying down our gear (not my job btw, but I'm not going to walk away and leave it for somebody else). It's loud on the aircraft as they are running some jet motor for power generation (don't know the actual name...maybe APU...Auxiliary Power Unit?)....and it's getting quite warm as they've now closed up both the rear and front doors....so it's also quite a bit darker as I finish chaining down our racks. The engineers have finished making sure all is well with the gear (it's running properly)....so we finally work our way out of the aircraft and climb into our now nearly empty truck, and jump back into the now container-less convoy headed back to the factory (where we are all parked)...and from there back to the hotels to sleep like the dead...as we've just worked a 15 hour night. My guys and I decide to stop at IHOP on the way home and have as much breakfast as we can bear (quite a lot)...mmmmmmMMMM! Love a tasty breakfast. After that it's back to the hotel for some serious snoozing.

Our schedule is for the aircraft to fly back to 'the base' tonight (Friday) and as soon as it leaves we can leave and also drive home....then to show back up at the flight-line Saturday at 6pm for a 12 hour night-shift...and again on Sunday for the next/final convoy of the container to the payload center. HOWEVER....we get calls this afternoon that the flight out has 'slipped' 24 hours (common aerospace term....slipped...meaning there was a problem with the aircraft and they have delayed departure for a day...so now the entire schedule has also slipped a day. So now I have a quiet day on Saturday here in LA...and as I said, we can't leave until the aircraft does (just in case for some reason they can't leave and we have to unload everything...it's happened before). And so...here I sit in my hotel room, Friday night, just coming up on Midnight...trying to stay awake as long as possible as I'll be working nights for the next few days. IF things go according to the 'new' schedule, the plane will fly tomorrow around midnight...and I can then drive home (about 3 to 4 hours). I'll probably make a stop for my favorite taco's in the world off on Topanga Canyon blvd in San Fernando Valley...a little hole in the wall called "Taco de Casa"...open 24 hours. I should get home around 3 to 4am Sunday morning...then I have to work the next 2 nights out on the flight-line...but that's ok...gets me out of my 'day job' for a while.

Well...now you are up on 'the haps' of my trip...it's been a pretty good one all in all...the guys (and girl) I've been working with...we all seem to get along pretty well...it's been a good crew thankfully. Had a few nice meals too...(benefits of being on Per-diem)....

And it's coming up on Midnight...don't think I'm going to last much longer than that sadly....by this time tomorrow I'll have my rental car loaded and be standing by waiting for a phone call (or text) that I can leave for home...then I hit the freeways north.

OK...bed time I guess...have a great weekend!

Cheers.

Saturday morning update: the aircraft did NOT leave last night as planned...some kind of engine problem. They pushed it 24 hours, now it's supposed to leave tonight around midnight...so we are still here awaiting them to fly.

Have a great weekend!



Sunday, September 21, 2014

Vuelta wrapup, and my newest adventure

And so...the Vuelta ended TODAY (Sunday). At least here in my house anyway....I FINALLY got to watch the remaining stages! Stage 20 was the LAST chance for anybody to make any GC moves. Contador had it pretty well locked up baring disaster, leading Froome by about 1:19 and Valverde by a bit more....JRod was even farther back so he wasn't even seen as a credible threat at this point, no matter how many attacks he and his teammates make. Have to admit that I REALLY enjoyed stage 20 (as I did ALL the summit finishes this year). For this final road stage there were FOUR ranked climbs...a cat 2, a 3, a 1 and an ESP (HC in Tour lingo). Everybody knew it would come down to the final climb...and it was a beast. That would be where any moves would happen.

AC had his team on the front a large part of the day, as the GC leader should. Then Sky finally took over, and the 4 man break (which had been reduced to 3) was starting to get reeled in quick. AC, Valverde and JRod all sat behind Froome as team Sky plowed thru the countryside. The final climb didn't disappoint either...JRod attacked as expected, though earlier than I would have thought...very gutsy of him. The GC guys all let him go and held their pace. He had up to 30 seconds or so at one point, but seemed doomed from the start unless he had magic legs (which he didn't). He was eventually reeled back in with steady tempo and solid riding on the long final climb.

Froome took over on the front and Alberto sat on his wheel, knowing where his true threat lie. They dropped Valverde and Aru (who has really been a breath of fresh air this year) as they couldn't match the pace. All the break riders were sucked back and then it was Froome and AC. He tried valiently a few times to get a gap on AC, which wasn't to be. AC didn't look like he was in distress at all, just matching Froome's moves time and time again. And finally just inside the final 1k Froome made his last desperate attempt. AC not only matched it but attacked on his own immediately after Froome dropped to his regular pace.  A small gap quickly opened, to which Froome could only watch. AC stood on the pedals and danced his way to a nice little gap and held it all the way to the line, winning his second stage in grand style, confirming HE was the man. The rest came in exactly the order of the overall GC standings amazingly....Froome, Valverde, JRod and Aru. Can't recall EVER seeing such a finish. I guess it just shows they finished exactly where they belonged.

The short ITT for Stage 21 (very odd that it was SO short) didn't have any real surprises in store, other than the weather kicked up for the final riders as they finished in driving rain and wet roads. This all but sealed the fact that none of the GC guys would even be able to go all out, and they all finished WAY back in the overall standings, but not affecting the GC placements at all.

We can only wonder how this amazing race would have played out had Horner been allowed to race, and if Quintana not crashed out early. Could Horner have matched the top 3 in the climbs? I have no idea, but he claimed his power numbers were good, even with the chest infection. As to Quintana....sure he was going to lose time in the TT to Alberto (and typically Froome, which oddly wasn't the case this year). In the off season he will really have to work on that skill if he wants to be a true GC man for the Grand Tours. That's JRod's crux....he can't TT very well so no matter how awesome he is in the climbs, he loses the race in the TT's. I'd have thought he'd have fixed that by now...maybe he just isn't a TT kind of guy...not everybody is cut out to do well in that discipline.

No matter though...it was a GRAND race from start to end. Sure the video is lacking as compared to it's big rich brother Le Tour...but as Susie has said...at least they are able to show picture in picture...something le Tour needs to learn. I was really warming to the commenting team...don't really know anything about Gogo...but it was mentioned several times he used to race....and he did have great insight...AND he wasn't annoying. I have to wonder if anybody will pick up Jensie (or Horner if he doesn't get a racing contract with somebody) next year...it was a real travesty that he wasn't able to defend his title. That's a very hard blow to a man looking for a contract, Grand Tour winner or not. And with the merging of Giant/Shimano and Trek, well...that's just another team lost for jobs. More bad luck in the pro peleton...and undoubtedly due to the doping past and sponsors shifting their dollars to less volatile sporting arena's where they don't eat their young alive. Such as the NFL...with their squeaky clean image (NOT).

And so...the cycling season is almost over. The Worlds are happening as I type....Team BMC with one of my FAVORITE riders (TJ) has claimed the Team Time Trial gold. That it rained and got windy for the final teams had no effect on the outcome (according to TJ....they would have won regardless). Yep...just another reason I don't like that guy. Whether it was true or not, it's VERY boastful and not really in great sportsmanship if you ask me (which nobody has). It's the World Road title that most interests me of course...lots of real contenders for that one...I'd love to see Fabian pull it off...but he will have a very difficult group of contenders to beat to do so.

As to my newest adventure (btw, I'm still working on the backpacking writeup...still need a copy of Greg's pictures before I can finish) this Wednesday morning I'm heading south to the LA area (for work).  I'm to be working with our PTS division  (Payload Transportation Service) picking up and delivering a Govy- spacecraft to Vandenberg for launch later this year. The PTS team has already been down last week and dropped off the GINORMOUS container (called the SCTS...for Space Cargo Transportation System). Effectively this, the largest of our payload containers, is the same size inside as the Space Shuttle cargo bay (which was originally designed to carry government spacecraft into orbit). The SCTS container system is an amazing thing...a totally self contained clean-room environment, self-provided power, temperature, humidity, etc...to keep it's MOST precious cargo safe and secure when it's not inside a cleanroom, or inside a fairing for launch, or lastly safely on orbit.

The factory will be loading the vehicle into the container early this week, and we will be transporting it in the dead of night to the backside of LAX and finally inside special gates, where our two specially modified C5 aircraft will be waiting nearby. The convoy of vehicles is something to behold...the mammoth SCTS container, propelled by it's "Prime Mover" (a specially designed huge diesel rig with all-wheel steering, created to tow the container on the streets, and also up/thru/and finally out of the modified C5 aircraft). The clearance inside the C5 is literally a few inches getting the container in the aircraft...we have a special "mockup" building modified to the exact specs as the inside of the C5, where our team can practice this maneuver (which is not an easy thing to do) prior to every mission. At the aft end of the container is the "bogey" which is a one-off specially designed vehicle of it's own right (somewhat similar to the back end unit of a fire department ladder truck,with it's own driver and steering)...it also has lots of wheels, all wheel steering, and it has lift/drop capability so when the prime mover / container start to go up the ramp into the aircraft, the bogey can lift the rear of the container up so it goes in almost level. There is a line running down the middle of the entire cargo bay and there are cameras in all the vehicles so they can be assured at all times they are driving dead-center in the bay. It's quite the complex job, but our PTS guys are the best in the world at what they do.

In the end sometime the following week the C5's and all of the crew will meet again at Vandenberg (where we typically work our 'day jobs') and unload the container/spacecraft, and eventually convoy it out to the waiting payload center (also in the dead of night). The loaded container typically travels a max speed of about 5mph on the streets, and with the modified tractor and bogey at the back it is capable to making 90 degree turns and even taking reasonable size hills, although it is a complex move. PTS guys will be on headsets all around the container walking the entire route (much like secret service agents outside the presidents car). The route thru the streets of LA is all pre-approved, and lots of off-duty police/sherrifs/highway patrol vehicles will be blocking traffic for us at all times. And there are actually a lot more people than you'd think out in the middle of the night, all wondering what's going on as we pass I'm sure.

I'll be riding probably 2nd vehicle back from the container in our special electronic 'monitoring' vehicle chock full of equipment (I'm not part of the actual PTS crew, I'm with the spacecraft). When the container is loaded on the aircraft we will load some of our equipment on-board also, which makes the flight with the precious cargo. I have to assume that only the finest pilots make this kind of mission....spacecraft aren't designed to be lying horizontal in gravity and take any kind of stress. They do go horizontal during construction quite often...but that's a far cry from that position in a jet takeoff/landing....the only real stress they are built to handle is in the vertical position (for the immense pressure/vibrations/etc of launch). I'm guessing these special pilots are capable of taking the largest airplane in the US arsenal and kissing it down on the runway so softly that you aren't aware you even landed.

I'll also end up working 12 hour nights in our electronics vehicle for a while after we arrive back at Vandenberg, and that will go on until the spacecraft is safely inside the payload facility. After that we hand the safety/security of the vehicle off to other hands and get back to our day jobs (and speaking of day jobs, mine is KILLING me of late). We have been short handed for a LONG time now....and last week they announced another round of layoffs...more WORKERS gone, leaving even more managers to do whatever it is they all do all day while we the working class KILL ourselves. Very frustrating to say the least. But hey....I'm sure I'm not the only one less than satisfied with their job these days...and at least I still HAVE a job. Thankfully things like this mission and other trips come up now and then, giving me a break from the short-handed drudgery of daily life.

OK. Back to my chores here at home...trying to get all my backpacking gear stowed and packed back into the attic for next year...which is among the many job's I've assigned myself for today. Busy busy busy... no rest for the weary.

Have a GREAT week!

Cheers!